A Decade In Orbit

Ten years ago today I arrived at Mission Control Center-Moscow in time to watch Expedition One dock with the space station. I gave the taxi driver, who bucked Moscow’s hideous traffic by balancing on some railroad tracks in the median of a jammed highway, a big tip for his trouble. It was worth it.

The docking, like much of the rest of station assembly since then, went off without a hitch. For the first time, we got to see a station docking target looming larger in the camera view of an approaching spacecraft — Soyuz TMA-31 in this case, launched from the same Baikonur pad used by Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin.

_Frank Morring, Jr./Aviation Week_

The crew — Commander Bill Shepherd of NASA and Russian flight engineers Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikaklev – appeared inside Russia’s Zvezda service module shortly afterward for a brief televised air-to-ground ceremony with the dignitaries assembled in Moscow.

NASA Administrator Dan Goldin good-naturedly allowed the crew to call their new orbiting home “Alpha,” after Shepherd sandbagged him with a request from orbit in front of his laughing audience. In that quaint by-and-by, the station’s managers on the ground had decided not to give it a name in any language, and it had become an issue with Expedition One.

The Expedition One crew members had started their careers on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. Shepherd, a Navy SEAL, is alleged to have joked that he was qualified to fly in space because he knew how to kill people with knives. But in orbit they were a tight team, and seemed to enjoy themselves together.

_NASA _ Space Station Alpha consisted of three pressurized modules — Zvezda, the Russian Zarya cargo block and NASA’s Unity Node.

_NASA_

Since then, of course, the International Space Station has grown into the premier aerospace structure of this generation, an orbiting laboratory as long as a football field with as much interior space as a Boeing 747, sustaining a crew of six 200 miles above Earth’s surface.

_NASA_

Goldin, who headed a hardworking U.S. team in negotiating the merger of “Space Station Freedom” with “Mir II,” summed up the significance of the event in his brief remarks on the balcony of the Russian control center.

“We built a team; we did it together,” he said. “It is very, very sweet because we did it together, not just with the Russian Space Agency, but with our friends from the European Space Agency, the Japanese space agency and Canada. Separately we might have tried to do it, and we wouldn’t be here. Today we’re here, and I’d just like to express my incredible gratitude to everyone who had the tolerance to learn how to work together for the best of all.”

Back at Baikonur, after the Soyuz had roared into a cloud bank at the start of its two-day journey to the station, Shepherd’s wife Beth and astronaut Suni Williams, who would later become one of the 196 people who have lived on the ISS, expressed the elation of that day when they lit up the traditional celebratory cigar.

_Frank Morring, Jr./Aviation Week_

Now, a decade later, the idea of living and working in space is almost a commonplace. The space station probably will fly for at least another 10 years, serving as an international laboratory for science and engineering. It already has proved its mettle as a cultural melting pot.

Godspeed, Alpha.

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